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The power paradox

In trying to establish its political dominance, the BJP is unable to manage multiple expectations

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: June 14, 2017 4:29 am
BJP, BJP Political Paradox, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, India News, Indian Express, Indian Express News In trying to establish its political dominance, the BJP is unable to manage multiple expectations (File Photo)

There are unmistakable signs that the BJP is falling into what might be called a “power paradox” trap. A power paradox is a situation where political dominance can, paradoxically, reduce your actual power to shape and guide society and economy. The BJP’s political, electoral, institutional and rhetorical dominance continues unabated. But the government seems to be increasingly at the mercy of social and economic undercurrents it is finding hard to control.

This situation is not unprecedented. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, at the height of their electoral dominance, also presided over periods where social and economic cleavages sharpened. These cleavages are of both kinds: Communal and ethnic cleavages, on the one hand, and the revival of agitations like farmers’ movements, etc., as we are seeing in Mandsaur, on the other. We may be an entering a new phase of this politics.

A simple personalised explanation for this is that political dominance begets hubris; therefore, rulers get out of touch without realising it. But there is perhaps a deeper paradox at work in the relationship between politics and economics. Those who acquire dominant control have a fantasy that political control can translate into mobilisation control of the economy.

This government has some important legislative achievements like the GST to its credit, and in some areas, like infrastructure creation, it has settled into a competent mode. But the impact of these reforms will be felt in the long run. In the meantime, the government is being held responsible for a sputtering economy — those who think the downturn will not produce social conflict have their heads in the sand.

The latest growth figures suggest a slowdown in the first quarter of this calendar year. Long-term drivers like gross capital formation and private investment indicate no cause for optimism. The kind of structural break this government had promised with past economic performance is a distant gleam. But the fact that confidence in the economy is not soaring three years into the regime is politically exacerbated by the fact that this government’s dominant political style is selling its own omniscience and omnipotence. This had three elements — the first is an unprecedented mobilisation of citizens for state projects. Demonetisation was the prime example of this. We still don’t have a full reckoning of the effects of demonetisation. But even its supporters would be hard-pressed to deny that in particular areas of the country, especially where cash crops are important, demonetisation has had disruptive effects. This seems true of the areas experiencing farmers’ agitations.

But the economically disruptive effects are one thing: There is also a sense that the political bargain inherent in the politics of total mobilisation has not yet materialised. Any possible gains from demonetisation are still too distant and diffuse, and less likely to compensate those who suffered most in the cause. So, an economic governance style founded on hyper-mobilisation will at some point be experienced as a betrayal.

The second element of building a dominant political coalition is the constant need to buy the loyalties of more groups. The general supposition is that political domination might enhance the capacity of the state to manage and resist demands placed on it. But often, the opposite happens — the process of extending political domination also unleashes expanding demands on the state. Loan waivers have been used in the past; they were also an essential element of the BJP’s economic strategy in Uttar Pradesh to broaden its base. It is hard to believe that the BJP did not know this would lead to similar demands elsewhere. The contagion effects of a demand in one state are enhanced when the same party rules more states. So, paradoxically, the broader the party’s social base, the more it is relentlessly seeking to expand, the more it may unleash unmanageable demands on the state. The curve of economic and social expectations can shift upward with political dominance. This is why so many politically dominant coalitions come to grief.

The third element in the limits of political domination is the perennial question of agriculture. Whatever the improvements in different parts of the country, this is still a sector deeply vulnerable to constant and adhoc shocks by the state and market. Most farmers still do not see a credible framework in place that insulates them against these shocks. On the one hand, the government has promised targets of doubling farmers’ incomes, new irrigation schemes, insurance, and so on. But framers are reeling under multiple uncertainties — in the case of some crops, prices collapsed; the government’s approach to imports and exports have been adhoc in a way that may benefit the consumer but penalises the farmer.

In short, while there are a range of interesting proposals on the table, there is no framework that credibly addresses questions of equity, security and productivity in agriculture. Which is why the politics of agriculture is subject to constant tussles between the farmer and the state. It has never been easy for any regime, from Indira Gandhi to Narendra Modi, to neutralise and manage the pressures of agrarian demand politics.

The decimation of political opposition may, at first glance, give the ruling party carte blanche to do whatever it wants. But there is also a real danger that as the opposition gets electorally decimated, a large number of social cleavages, grievances, discontents that were routinely channelled through political parties, now search for new outlets and social movements. You can sense simmering discontent, a discontent made all the more disquieting by the fact that it is struggling to find even discursive space — in fact, by denying the legitimacy of these grievances, whether on demonetisation or agriculture, by attributing criticism to conspiracy, the state sharpens the conflict. But the more dominant a political coalition, the more likely that state and society will now be directly pitted against each other.

So, you have the paradox. A politically dominant government becomes hostage to forces it cannot control. Its success has made it hostage to the worst elements within the party. The cultural right wing is demanding its pound of flesh (if not now, when?, is the argument). The constant need for political mobilisation has altered the structure of economic demands and expectations and will create new conflicts. And having sold the rather debatable proposition that political domination is a necessary condition for economic regeneration by the government, it is struggling to match, for the moment, the performance of UPA 1. Political domination, by conjuring visions of omnipotence, creates the seeds of its own destruction.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’

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More From Pratap Bhanu Mehta
  1. Anil Kumar Tandale
    Jun 15, 2017 at 6:46 am
    Another desperate attempt to denigrate the mandate of 2014. Under past seven decades only persons professing leftist ideology were implanted every where, so much that even after three years, those elements could not be smoked out. By the way, there is no other second ranking leader in BJP. Similar position in Congress, the time tested party has got only rusted persons to be projected. Like wise DMK party or AIADMK factions cannot look beyond Tamilnadu. The successors in TRS or TDP cannot impress anyone beyond state boundaries. Shiv Sena, BJD, BSP and TMC have no one to whom baton can be passed. Akhilesh or Nitish also are confined to the well of their states. CPI and CPM have their graphs moving downwards. Power does not recognize any vacuum, which has to be filled only by BJP which has grown into own majority in Haryana, Rajasthan, UP, MP, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Assam, Goa and smaller states. TINA factor is loaded in favor of BJP and Modi, in spite of the wailing and ranting journos.
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      Amit Singh
      Jun 15, 2017 at 3:10 pm
      Tandale is paid troll of bjp it cell.
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        rishi
        Jun 15, 2017 at 5:25 pm
        amit singh forms one of the left-over traces of the cancerous limbs of an obsessively anti-BJP brigade turning irrational as they go berserk in frustration at BJP's growing command and popularity earned purely on visible verance, hardwork and honesty.
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      RJ
      Jun 15, 2017 at 3:06 am
      Still, I will give Modi another 20 years. I don't see an alternative.
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        rishi
        Jun 15, 2017 at 5:26 pm
        same here.
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        Ramesh Nittoor
        Jun 14, 2017 at 11:35 pm
        The third element in the limits of political domination is the perennial question of agriculture. --- Congress under IG did do well with green revolution but Indian per acre yields have been always low even by Asian standards. Indian rice yields are still lower than what Chinese achieved 100 years earlier. Unless manufacturing and service sector growth are able to deploy surplus rural labor, right sizing of farms a critical enabler to absorb technology and scientific inputs viably is not practical.
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          Ramesh Nittoor
          Jun 14, 2017 at 11:46 pm
          As PC had highlighted in an earlier column, numbers matter, but unlike Congress policy which did not care much for ethical question about black and white money, BJP I believe is right about right means to right numbers. Stress on means have lowered investment in short term, but remarkable capacity to funnel welfare measures via DBT has been built, and inflation contained. Getting two elements of the triad required for development is no mean achievement, and stage set for sustainable rapid development.
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          George.Cruz
          Jun 14, 2017 at 10:12 pm
          Pratap Banu Mehta is a P a k I. She (a s s ming that she is a woman) was once married to a P a k I s t a n I. So she is loyal to P a k I s t a n. That is why she is finding fault with N A Z I R"SS" TERRORISTS GUIDED BJP RULE.
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            Amit Singh
            Jun 15, 2017 at 3:12 pm
            You uneducated fellow cannot understand the importance of being pbm in educated circle
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              rishi
              Jun 15, 2017 at 5:31 pm
              barely literate you mean going by the fact that even a high-schooler of today is a far better informed citizen ! your limited exposure to education is visible in your s.t.u.p.i.d. comment !
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            Murthy
            Jun 14, 2017 at 9:43 pm
            After SIXTY years of absolute dominance over INDIA, what expectations did the Dynasty - of which this Mehta person is a Bhakt - fulfill ?? Politicians and officials built for themselves a huge Corruption Raj and those of us who have the money play it according to "rules" set by the Dynasty.
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            1. Al S
              Jun 14, 2017 at 9:57 pm
              Every time the congress was democratically elected, it was the mandate of Indian citizens. BJP fought many of the same elections but in some of them, lost its deposits. If you decry any elected government, you are decrying the people of India.
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                Amit Singh
                Jun 15, 2017 at 3:16 pm
                Establishment of iits iims, nearly all central and state universities. Bhakhra nangal dam irigation system, indira gandhi canal. Economic liberalisation leading to mobile in hands of like you is achievement of congress. Name one good educational and healthcare govt ins u on by your god who pays you established in gujrat in last 12/14 years?
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                  R K
                  Jun 16, 2017 at 12:44 pm
                  earlier there was not alternative to congis....children in their school textbooks and the general public was made to believe through the paid media controlled by congi supporting industrialists that this dynasty controlled congis were the ones who fought for the independence of this country...Gandhi had long entertained the though that the name of congress that fought for freedom will be mis-used, that is why he asked the congress party to be closed after it had attained its objective of freedom of the country....
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